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Tips for choosing a telephony system for the SMB

The process of choosing an IP telephony system can seem daunting but here's some help.

IP telephony technologies have matured to the point where SMBs (small-medium sized businesses) can realize great business benefits. Beyond savings on long distance bills, the ability to integrate business and communication applications onto one, centrally managed system can help SMBs better compete in today's demanding business environment.

However, the process of choosing an IP telephony system can seem daunting. This is exacerbated by the fact that many IP telephony systems sold to SMBs are nothing more than enterprise solutions stripped of features and repackaged as an SMB solution.

Below are some tips that will help with the decision making process by mapping business goals to telephony requirements and ensuring a maximum return on your investment.

Assess impact of phone communication on revenue
The investment you make in your phone system (financial or otherwise) should reflect the role of telephony in your day-to-day business. For instance, if your business uses the phone for sales, customer service or technical support, your system should support at least one external line for each department, as well as one for the main line. Handling multiple departments on a single external line could lead to constant busy signals or voice mail, resulting in negative customer experiences.

If your company has branch or remote offices, you should look for a system that allows you to easily support and manage more than one location. In addition, if your company utilizes CRM software, you should look for a system that allows you to integrate those kinds of applications with your telephony system.

One size does not fit all
Companies with 25 to 100 users should evaluate both hybrid systems (composed of IP and traditional multi-line analog technology) and pure IP telephony systems.

While hybrid systems are usually feature rich and inexpensive, they are limited in their ability to scale. Most hybrid systems can usually only expand to 100 users per unit. Some hybrid key systems allow boxes to be daisey-chained together in order to support more than 100 users at a time. However, installation and maintenance can be complicated.

On the other hand, some IP telephony systems may require a larger initial investment. However, their ability to scale beyond 100 users on a single unit means future savings. Don't underestimate the costs of additional equipment and labor associated with installation. The return on the up-front investment in an IP telephony system can far outweigh the initial savings associated with buying a hybrid system.

Who and what
Take into account who will be using the system, for what, and how critical it is to their job function. This will help determine what features are necessary and which are just "nice to have." Keep in mind that features should increase user productivity.

For instance, the ability to call a contact and view their existing history by clicking their name in the Outlook address book saves time and arms employees with information they need to do their jobs more effectively. Another example is multi-line conference call support. This feature could be a requirement for organizations that host regular conference calls but might be considered superfluous by companies that don't.

Keep it simple stupid: Lost Productivity = Lost Revenue
Two often-overlooked yet critical attributes to examine are:

  1. the ease of installation and maintenance for administrators, and
  2. ease of use for end-users.

Multi-box IP telephony systems are complicated to install and manage, so look for systems with as few boxes as possible and a common interface for managing multiple applications. Also, if you plan on adding users or features to your system, look for vendors that offer license-based upgrades. License-based upgrades greatly reduce the time and effort required for adding features or users to the system.

Similarly, the end-user client interface should be intuitive so as not to diminish productivity. Again, look for Windows-based interfaces and IP phones with one-button or one-click access to commonly used features.

Some red flags to watch out for:

  • The need for special certification for installation and maintenance
  • Difficult or unclear documentation for self-installation, maintenance and end-user features
  • Requirement of special equipment, cables or cabling structure, and third party provisioning tools.

    The importance of being open
    The IP telephony industry is rapidly moving toward standards that ensure interoperability between different systems and third party applications.

    However, some vendors' products still include some proprietary technologies. This greatly limits interoperability and may require special certification. Additionally, this can mean that staff has to be specially trained, impacting your staffing requirements and budgets. This can also lock you in to a single vendor's solutions, limiting your options for future growth and compromising interoperability with third-party applications.

    The emerging standard that has gained support from the likes of Microsoft and Sun Microsystems (to name just a few) is the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP). SIP is an Internet Engineering Task Force standard protocol that initiates an interactive user session to manage multimedia traffic, such as data, video, voice, chat, gaming, etc. Again, while some large IP telephony vendors support SIP, be cautious of products that still include proprietary protocols.

    Now's the time
    Choosing an IP telephony system can seem like a daunting task. However, once armed with a few important bits of information, SMBs can make purchasing decisions that will reap tremendous rewards. Today's IP telephony systems are delivering on the promise of converged voice, data, video and fax - all on a single system. In the process, businesses of all sizes can realize productivity gains that will set them apart from their competition.

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